WASHINGTON — Amid tensions in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized, including a four-day stay in the intensive care unit, according to two senior administration officials.
The Pentagon did not inform senior White House National Security Council officials of Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday – three days after he arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, a US official confirms. Politico first reported the delay.
Austin released a statement Saturday taking responsibility for not disclosing his condition sooner.
“I am very happy to be in good health and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon. I also understand the media’s concerns about transparency and recognize that I could have done a better job of making sure the public was properly informed. I am committed to better,” Austin said. “But it’s important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Austin has been unable to perform his duties since the New Year, a senior defense official said Friday. Pentagon Press Secretary Lt. Gen. Pat Ryder told NBC News that Austin “fully assumed his duties” Friday night.
Austin remained hospitalized Saturday. It was unclear when he would be released, the source said. Details of what ailed him were not available.
Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Monday night for “complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” Ryder said in a statement Friday night.
Pentagon officials would not disclose what the process was or when it took place. They also refuse to give details about how serious Austin’s condition was this week.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on leave, took over, the senior defense official said.
Hicks was on prearranged leave when Austin was hospitalized this week, according to a defense official. He has been vacationing in Puerto Rico, the official said.
“He maintained full communication with DOD personnel throughout,” the official said. “He oversaw the day-to-day operations of the DOD and conducted some routine work.”
The third in line among the Pentagon’s political leadership, the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, is being temporarily filled as an acting position because nominee Derek Chollet has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the source said. Sasha Baker he has been playing the role since last summer.
“At all times, the deputy defense secretary stood ready to act and exercise ministerial authority if necessary,” Ryder said in the statement.
Pentagon officials declined to describe Austin’s condition or say exactly what prevented him from performing his duties this week.
The Pentagon also did not release details about the procedure or when it took place, and would not say whether Austin was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
Asked why the Pentagon kept Austin’s hospitalization secret, Ryder told NBC News, “This was an evolving situation where we had to look at a number of factors.”
Those include Austin’s personal privacy, he said.
While Austin was being treated, the US did a rare and controversial strike against a senior Iranian-backed militia in Baghdad, bases with Americans have been attacked at least six times, and the Biden administration is considering options to strike Houthi fighters in response to their continued attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
Iran-backed Houthi fighters based in Yemen, unhappy with Israel’s attacks on Palestinian communities, are they attack container ships in the Red Sea.
On December 30, a US Navy destroyer shot down two Houthi missiles after responding to a strike on a container ship that resulted in no injuries or damage, military officials said at the time. The next day, Houthi rebels fired on Navy helicopters responding to a container ship distress call. The Navy retaliated, sinking three small boats and killing the crews, officials said.
The US is also wary of further regional involvement as Hezbollah fighters supported by Iran in Lebanon they exchange ammunition with Israel along its northern border.